SNAIL MAIL BLESSINGS: Spreading Kindness the Old-Fashioned Way (Thank You Notes Edition)  

It has been almost two months since I invited you to join me in what I’m calling the Snail Mail Blessings Challenge. I created the challenge because, in this age of instant texts and emails, I’ve been missing the special connection of a different kind of correspondence – the old-fashioned hand-written note.  

Jump in anytime. Miss a week? No problem. It’s not about perfection or pressure. It’s about blessing others through the simple act of putting pen to paper, putting that paper in an envelope, addressing it by hand, affixing a stamp and sending it off. 

SPOILER ALERT: I’ve been a letter writer all my life. At first, it was because my mother and grandmother were in cahoots and made me. And how did they do this? Christmas and birthday gifts. I was informed at a very young that Christmas and birthday gifts were special (which they were) but that I wouldn’t receive them unless I remembered to write a thank you note to each person who gave me one. Writing thank you notes, they said, was like sending a gift back to the giver – but in written form!  What a concept! 

So, from a very young age, I wrote thank you notes. At first, I didn’t like writing them. They took so much time and I wanted to play. 

But my mother was smart and for birthdays she made sure we invited just a small number of party-goers, so that writing those notes as manageable. 

And my grandmother made letter writing fun because she would answer my thank you notes with lovely notes of her own and, just like that, we were writing letters back and forth. I still have many of them. Here’s an example of one I wrote when I was 10.  (Don’t you just love my frankness in describing my new neighbors?)

TODAY’S CHALLENGE:  I love my mother’s and grandmother’s idea hand-penned thank you note is like sending a gift back to the giver, but in written form.

This has certainly been true for me. I love getting thank you notes!  Some of my favorites have been from students I have visited in schools (and I love that their teachers are cultivating this art with the next generations).  Here’s are a couple of examples from a virtual visit with my friend Tina Cho’s class in South Korea back in 2016:

I also love this thank-you note I received soon after LITTLE EWE released. My father sent a copy of the book to his Great-Aunt Beanie, who he hadn’t seen in decades. It was his special way of reconnecting with her and the note she sent in return was certainly a gift to us.  Here it is:

Will you join me in writing a thank you letter to someone this week?  And maybe you could make this your goal for the next few weeks as well.  Blessings, all, snail mail and otherwise!

LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

I’ve been spending hours in my basement lately re-organizing and on one of the shelves I re-discovered this box of little toy cars. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this car-themed post from 2017. Enjoy!

I was organizing boxes in my basement this weekend and rediscovered this – it’s a box full of my childhood Matchbox cars co-mingled with my husband’s –  with some more recent additions from when my kids were little.  The youngest cars in the collection are about fifteen years old – the oldest – almost fifty!  What amazes me most about this collection is the wildly contrasting condition of the cars.

I mean, if you look at them carefully, they are all comprised of the same basic elements – wheels, chassis, colorful paint job.  And, yes, of course, all have doors, hoods, and trunks (some that open which were my favorites as a kid). Yeah, yeah, some are trucks instead of cars, but basically they all fit into the same overarching miniature toy car category.

And yet, through the seemingly innocent act of playing with them… look how distinctive they’ve become! My husband’s cars are all battered up. He even had to repaint his little toy ambulance, a very necessary vehicle for his play world. That’s because for him, a perfect day of play involved car races and crashes and battles over rough terrain.

By contrast, my perfect day of automobile play involved creating a village in the fragrant bed of pine needles that covered the craggy old roots that abutted my grandparents’ driveway. I would spend hours creating roads and story lines to go with each car as they navigated my imaginary village world, stopping for tea at imaginary tea houses and picnics along imaginary vistas. Very different from my husband’s play.

But that’s where the originality and creativity emerges, isn’t it?

Writing stories is a lot like playing with toy cars.  We all begin with the same basic car parts – the words – and all our stories fit into a relatively small range of car models, i.e. story structures, plot lines and universal themes.

But does that mean that originality is impossible?  Not at all.  Like children playing with toy cars, that’s where the creativity begins!  So get out those stories-in-progress this week, or grab a new little car – and then PLAY! I wonder what new play worlds will emerge this week. Happy Monday all!

The Power of SETTING in PICTURE BOOKS

There once was a child who loved to play make believe and every day, using her imagination, she created story worlds. Somedays, she was a pioneer traveling the prairie in a covered wagon. Other days, she was teeny tiny person living amongst the craggy roots of her grandmother’s old pine grove. And sometimes, she was a magic fairy flying through sparkle-mist clouds in a world full of dragons. Her storyline was always similar – young girl, headstrong and brave in the face of danger, forging new friendships in the midst of the unknown. What changed each day, or every few days, was the SETTING! And that, for the little girl, was what made all the difference. 

That girl, if you haven’t figured out by now, was me and, as a picture book author, I’m still enamored with the power of SETTING to make a story shine. In fact, three of my six picture books began with quite ordinary settings. Goodnight, Ark began as a quite ordinary tale two storm-frightened children and a thunder-spooked dog all bounding into their parents’ very crowded bed. It wasn’t until I started playing with possible alternate settings – initially a hollow log in the woods – and ultimately Noah’s Ark – that the story really took off. And what made the difference that allowed my imagination to soar in new, creative directions? SETTING! 

A similar switching-up occurred with Goodnight, Manger which began as the story of a hen trying to get her chicks to sleep in a typical barn setting. It wasn’t until I decided to make it a very special barn – the stable where Baby Jesus was born – that the story took shape in a fresh new way.  Likewise, my picture book Love is Kind (Zonderkidz, August 8, 2018) began as the simple story of a small boy in a small town on a quest to get his grammy something for her birthday. It wasn’t until I made the protagonist an owl and set the tale in a magical woodsy setting, that the story took off.

Even though my opera-themed picture book, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse, was set in an opera house from the get-go and Little Ewe, likewise, was always set in a meadow,  it’s still the settings that help those stories really take off.  Indeed, as picture book author Susanna Leonard Hill remarked about Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse in one of her lovely Perfect Picture Book Friday posts, “The fun of this book is in the setting – an opera house… Although the story is really about friendship, manners, and appreciation, the fact that it takes place in an opera house and involves operatic performance makes it educational as well as original and fun.”

In fact, for all my books (and yours too, probably), I would argue that the impact of carefully considering setting reaches far beyond just text and storyline. Fresh settings also open the door to fabulous illustrations because they allow illustrators, too, to stretch their imaginations and create spreads that are more unusual and fun than they might have been with more ordinary settings.

In Goodnight,Ark, for example, how much more fun is it to gasp at tigers jumping into a bed already crowded with sheep, wild boar and quail – than to see two small children and a dog crowding into a quite ordinary run-of-the-mill bed? Much more fun!

And in Goodnight, Manger how much more thrilling is it to see a frazzled mama asking a glorious array of angels, rather than geese, for example, to quiet down? Much more fun!

And doesn’t the special friendship between Delores and that Opera House Mouse seem that much more magical with the backdrop of velvet curtains and floral bouquets? 

Finally, just look at these darling spreads from Love Is Kind  and Little Ewe in which illustrator Lison Chaperon and Tommy Doyle each use their imagination, prompted by my settings, to create wonderful story worlds!

I don’t have any interior to show you yet from my next release BUNNY FINDS EASTER but you can take a peek on Amazon where you will see that a charming cottage setting enhances that story as well.

Because setting is powerful in the hands both author and illustrator, I think it’s important, as writers, to spend time contemplating how we might enhance our stories by taking full advantage of the setting. So, here’s my takeaway:  If you find yourself stuck in a story, wondering how to make it stand out from the rest, why not take some time this week to play with setting.  Maybe you will find, as I have, that a new setting might make all the difference!  Happy writing all!

Write like a…DOG!!!

I love my early morning walks with our sweet cockapoo, Sophie. For me, it’s a chance to get some morning exercise and enjoy the freshness of a brand new day. I often have my camera with me so I can snap pictures of glorious moments – like spotting a purple orb – or discovering sidewalk chalk art drawn by a child. But for Sophie it’s all about scent and sound! Indeed, it’s first with nose and ears, not eyes, that she notices a cottontail bunny or crinkling leaf or sweet clover.  She even sniffs out long forgotten, and apparently smelly, tennis balls, hidden deep in our pachysandra.

Just for fun, I sometimes close my eyes and try to soak up the world from Sophie’s perspective. When I do, it’s amazing how heightened my other senses become. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed:  flags flapping, gate hinges creaking, wild onion smells so pungent you can almost taste them,  fresh coffee wafting out the neighbor’s kitchen window, the tickle of a lady bug bare skin, and the coolness of wet grass between my toes.

As writers for young children I think we could all benefit from closing our eyes sometimes.  I don’t mean burying our heads in the sand so that our writing is sappy and disconnected from reality. Of course not. What I mean is that my writing, at least, tends towards the visual if I’m not careful. But when I’m intentional (and close my eyes) my other senses kick in and my writing is enriched. Using multi- sensory imagery is especially important in picture books and other illustrated pieces, such as poems for magazines, where the illustrations already provide plenty of visual detail. So, go ahead, close your eyes and feel those other senses kick in. That’s my plan this week. Happy writing all!

TAKEAWAYS from the Write2Ignite Picture Book Master Class

On Saturday, it was my joy to lead a day-long virtual Picture Book Master Class sponsored by the faith-based non-profit Write2Ignite. We opened the day with prayer and a thought-provoking devotional on listening given by organizer Jean Hall. Over the course of the day, attendees participated in three workshops led by me with follow-up break out sessions for each. At the end of the day, attendees were asked to share their biggest takeaways from the experience. And what a delight to read them this morning over on the Write2Ignite blog. And what was my biggest takeaway? Hmmm… it’s hard to pick. Here are a few:

  • There’s a sense of encouragement in gathering with other children’s authors to discuss and celebrate picture books. As many attendees noted, they ended the day (tired) but excited about taking their writing in new directions and maybe even pulling out some old stories to give them a new chance with a fresh eye. I, too, feel refreshed and ready to dig back into my writing- inspired by the energy of our day together.
  • The day re-affirmed for me what I’ve known for a long time – that the kid lit community is a wonderfully warm and supportive one. It was a delight to gather with this group – who all share a heart for writing faith-inspired stories. Thank you for having me!
  • My last takeaway is that as writers on this journey, we are always still learning. I may have been the Master Teacher for the day, but I step into this week re-energized to keep on learning and growing as a writer. That’s why this summer, I’m excited to share that I will expanding my Picture Book with P.U.N.C.H. blog series to include even more structures. I can’t wait to dig in to stacks and stacks of picture book mentor texts to unlock and discover what makes picture books shine. I hope you will join me.

And now, I hope you will grab a cup of tea and pop over to the Write2Ignite blog to see what others took away from our special day: https://write2ignite.com/2021/04/26/takeaways-from-the-master-class-on-picture-books-heres-what-you-learned-by-carol-baldwin/

Write2Ignite PICTURE BOOK MASTER CLASS: Explore Picture Books with Laura Sassi

Want to explore picture books with me? I’m honored to be the Master Teacher at Write2Ignite Conference Spring Picture Book Master Class taking place virtually Saturday, April 24th, 2021 from 9am to 5pm and today on their blog, you’ll get a sense of what we’ll be doing in each of the three workshops. Plus there are two books up for grabs: LOVE IS KIND and EL AMOR ES BONDADOSO. Details about the workshop, including registration, and how to enter the giveaway are all in their post! Here’s the link:

SAVE THE DATE: A Picture Book Master Class with Laura Sassi

I’m so excited to be teaching the Master Class on Picture Writing for the Write2Ignite Conference for Christian Writers of Children’s and Young Adult Literature this coming April 24, 2021. Taught virtually – so writers from near and far can attend – it’s going be a day full of learning and fun – all while stretching our story-telling skills. To learn more about the Write2Ignite Master Class programs as well as the story of how this wonderful non-profit came to be, check out their website and blog. Registration details coming soon via their website. I hope you’ll join me!

THE POWER OF LISTS: Early Chapter Book Style

I am a list maker and have been all my life. As a child I wrote lists of what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays. I also kept lists of the books I read. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I even had a list of last names that I thought would be good for the main characters in my future books. Whipple was at the top of the list!

My mother was a list maker too. And so was her mother. I know this because my mother insisted that I make packing lists before traveling and showed me how to do it. And my grandmother kept lists on index cards documenting every single dinner party she ever hosted, who came, what time they arrived, and what she served. My daughter is now a list-maker too. This summer she kept a list of healthy snack and meal ideas which we still refer to regularly. 

Now that I’m mid-century age-wise and somewhat forgetful at times, I keep daily lists to help me remember the things I need to do. I also keeps lists of things such as blog posts I’d like to write about. For awhile, I kept a list of every new word I learned. And I still keep lists of the books I have read and the books I want to read. This post actually is becoming a list of all the kinds of lists I like to make.

The point is – I couldn’t survive without lists. Neither could my writing. Flip through any journal of mine and you will see lists. Lists of potential story ideas. Lists of potential character names. Lists of favorite memories. Lists of craft ideas and poem ideas. You name it, I’ve listed it. Indeed, lists have become one of  my go-to strategies for combatting writer’s block. But even after I have an idea and the creative juices are flowing, lists play a crucial role in developing that idea.

As I wrote each of my rhyming picture books, for example, I paused many times to make lists. I wrote lists of fun rhyming pairs and vivid sound words and more. And, as I point out to students at school visits, those lists helped immensely! Indeed, many of the words and ideas generated in those lists appear in the final versions of each book.

This month I’m applying this list strategy to chapter books. That’s right, as part of my challenge to myself to write a chapter book series, I have set a goal for myself to make a list plot ideas throughout the month of November. Actually, in this case, the list is a little more complex. I’m collecting vignettes or scenes for possible future use in this potential series, so my “list” includes not only one-word or short phrase “titles” for each possible vignette, but also a page or two of free-writing that potential story scene from the POV of my chapter book protagonist. 

Of course, it’s only November 5th. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m already excited about how this new chapter book-themed list is taking shape.  (And I’m blessed to have a chapter book critique group taking a similar challenge to keep me accountable – and I recommend that too.)

Are you a list maker? If not, why not give list-making a try this week as a way to get those creative juices flowing! Have fun!

SPILT MILK: Five Tips for Finding Time to Write

Don’t you love this tiny figurine set of kittens lapping up spilt milk that I was given as girl? I keep it in a printer’s tray that hangs in my bathroom with many other little treasures. (That’s a topic for another post.)  The messy little scene reminds me that over the course of my life, spilt milk, spilt detergent, and even spilt glitter have made me cry. Perhaps you can relate.  However, there’s one thing I never cry about.  Spilling words! Specifically words on paper.  Indeed, my joy each day, is in finding time to spill words for that time blesses my soul and, by extension, I hope it blesses those who subsequently read those words.  

The daily challenge, however, is in finding the time, for unlike milk or glitter, which, at least at our house, spill far too easily and frequently,  spilling words freely and creatively is quite another matter.  

With that in mind, here are five tips for finding time to let those words flow freely:

Tip #1: Set special time aside each day to write.  For me, this means beginning the day with 30 minutes of writing before the sun rises.  It’s amazing how freely the words flow before the cares of the day set in.

Tip #2: Turn off distractions, like the internet, for a pre-determined period of time and, instead of surfing the web or scrolling through your various feeds, write.

Tip #3: Exercise your mind and body by writing using dictation mode while you walk or use the treadmill. I love this strategy especially when I’m experiencing writer’s block.

Tip #4: Find a writing buddy or group to meet with weekly, virtually or in person, for an hour or more of writing. Check in with each other both before and after the writing session with writing intentions and accomplishments.  Note:  This is also a good way to stay connected during a pandemic.

Tip #5: Write for five minutes on the top of the hour – all day long. For those other 55 minutes, your mind will be whirring with ideas, as you go about your day, then you can let them pour out in hourly spurts.  Set the timer and don’t hesitate – write! This worked especially well when my kids were little.

This is just is getting the spilling started. What tips would you add?  Please share in the comments. 

And for more thoughts on finding time to write and maximizing the time we do have, here are some other posts you might enjoy:

Ten Tips for Finding Writing Time When You Think You’re Too Busy to Write!

GUEST POST: Take a Spirit Vacation with Children’s Writer Sara Matson

JOURNALING AND OTHER STRATEGIES: Thoughts on Unleashing Our Creativity

SPOTTED FAWN: Thoughts on Brand New Stories

Our little town in NYC suburbia is teeming with wild life – chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, deer and more. I spot them often while on my morning walks. Pictured above is one of my favorites – a brand new fawn spotted two summers ago curled up in the dappled shade of a neighbor’s front lawn – so tiny and fresh, with soft baby chestnut colored hide and bright white spots! She’s the third such fawn I’ve discovered over the last few years, hidden – in plain sight – on the lawns of our suburban New Jersey community.

The first time I saw a fawn curled up like this with no mama in sight, I thought it might be abandoned or lost.  I’ve since learned that it’s standard practice in the deer world for a mama to leave her brand new (or nearly new) baby snuggled up like this in a quiet open space. She does this because when newly born, fawns are still wobbly and too little to keep pace with the older deer. Mama also needs to forage on her own for food so she has what she needs to properly nurse and care for her baby.

And – if you haven’t figure it out yet – yes, this sweet fawn so tender and new has gotten me thinking about writing. Seeing her this morning reminds me how, as a beginning writer, I was often tempted to submit my stories to publishers way too prematurely when what they really needed was to be left alone to rest and grow in a quiet place while I went about my business of reflection, revision and nursing those stories with plenty of quiet restful breaks in between feedings, until they were truly fit and ready to send.

I think ALL writers, seasoned and new, can benefit from this reminder every once in a while  – and what cuter way to be reminded than with the image of a sweet young fawn snuggled up in a quiet front lawn.

Happy writing… and remember not to rush the process.

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. I plucked this oldie, but goodie, from August of 2018.